Older woman using shell as hearing aid to hear the surrounding ocean noise with her grandson.

It seems impossible that a tiny creature in the sea could someday be an effective treatment for hearing loss, but one group of researchers says they have all the right stuff. The Center for Hearing and Communication estimates 48 million people in the U.S. have hearing problems and many of them are elderly. Age-related hearing loss affects one in every three people over the age of 65. These are the individuals that will likely benefit from the studies being done on the sea anemones.

What is a Sea Anemone?

Sea anemones are the exotic creatures often seen in ocean-based photography. It’s a group of sea animals that get their name from a flowering plant called the anemone. Similar to the plant, sea anemones have at Medusa-like quality that consists of a columnar trunk surrounded by flowing tentacles.

These are highly predatory creatures that use their tentacles for hunting. They pull the arms in to draw in prey and then expand when it comes time to catch their next meal. The tentacles also help propel them through the water, although, they tend to remain stationary for weeks at a time.

What kind of food do they eat? The sea anemones are not picky eaters. They pull the tentacles out to catch just about any animal that comes within reach and will fit in its mouth.

How the Sea Anemone can Help the Hearing Impaired

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology reports that the sea anemone has tiny hair cells that allow them to sense vibrations in the ocean when catching prey. The core of these hair cells is similar to what humans use to hear.

The inner ear consists of a labyrinth structure filled with these delicate hair cells. The hair cells transduce the vibrations of sound into something the brain can understand. Without them, there is no way for you to comprehend what you hear.

The problem with the very tiny hair cells found in both humans and sea anemones is that they tend to break. These broken hairs are the basis for the hearing loss that occurs as people get older. Decades of listening to people talk, to your favorite TV show and to the local band that plays every weekend will catch up to you. The tiny hair cells break down after years of service and hearing is diminished.

For humans, the damage to these hair cells is impossible to fix. The sea anemone, though, has a built-in system that is the key to their survival. Without the hair cells, they cannot detect prey in the area, so they don’t eat. During reproduction, the sea anemones tear their body in two and that breaks the hair cells. Afterward, they cover themselves with mucus that contains a protein to repairs tissue including the hair cells.

The Sea Anemone Study

University of Louisiana biology professor Glen Watson and his colleagues decided to look closer at the healing process of the sea anemone to see if those same repair proteins might work for different species. The researchers used mice in the study because their ears have similar hair cells — called stereocilia — that enable hearing. They destroyed the stereocilia in the test mice and then treated them with repair protein taken from a starlet sea anemone. The result was significant repair of the stereocilia.

Will That Protein Work on Humans?

The study shows that fixing similar hair cells with this protein does work in other animals, specifically the mice used for this research. The problem is mice are not humans. They have proteins that are related to the ones the sea anemones use for repair. People, on the other hand, do not any that connection. For scientists, the next step is to find a way to harness the repair power of the sea anemone using a natural protein or by harvesting something in nature. If successful, they might be able to repair damage to these hair cells and fix hearing loss in humans.

It’s likely that a cure for age-related hearing loss is still years away. This discovery and research are important, though. It proves that some animals have the ability to repair hair cells and, with more study, it might someday work for humans, too.

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